Sunday, September 21, 2008

Contemporary Crises in (Animal) Ethics

Animal ethics is really ethics, in some sense. Any fully articulated theory of animal rights, for example, must not only be an account of our ethical stance towards nonhuman animals. Ideally, it should offer a complete system of ideas pertaining to the ethical treatment of human beings too. When I say “animal ethics” in this series, I really mean “ethics,” and only indicate “animal ethics” to let it be known that I take animals seriously, quite unlike most ethicists in my estimation. In my journal article (available on this website under Academic writing), "The Rights of Animal Persons," I begin to articulate an ethical theory to account for our obligations, etc. towards all kinds of sentient beings. However, I did not compose this theory, or perhaps discover it, because I was complacently adding to a philosophical tradition that had it “all figured out.” On the contrary, contemporary ethics is in the midst of important, far-reaching, and deeply seated crises. Here is a listing of these important crises as I see them, which I attempt to address in my forthcoming book:

  1. A crisis of justification in ethics, in the midst of which those who assert moral universals generally rely on variants of intuitionism, and those who deny such universals equally point to intuitionism only in a negative way. Widespread cultural skepticism might lead even noble people to become cynical about moral claims. Intuitions result in a stalemate between different ethical theories. The dead heat cannot be settled intuitively, for that just leads in circles. Yet without resolving the intuitive impasse, skepticism about ethics might well be justified. Tom Regan explicitly depends upon “reflective intuitions” in The Case for Animal Rights. Regan intuits that subjects-of-a-life (who are, roughly speaking, animals who might be the subject of rights, although there is controversy as to whether he means all sentient beings) have equal inherent value, which comes intuitively prepackaged with the idea that they must not be subject to utilitarian consideration. Others, such as Peter Singer, who criticize Regan's explicit intuitionism are what I call “crypto-intuitionists” (those who hide their dependence on intuitions) since Singer relies on his own intuitions. Singer is a utilitarian, and as moral skeptic Bernard Williams points out in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, utilitarianism depends on at least two intuitions: an intuited theory of value, and an intuition that we ought to maximize net utility.
  2. A crisis in rights theories, such that they do not even logically entail protective rights. I write about this in “The Rights of Animal Persons.” There I show that the leading theories of human rights are so logically vacuous that they permit almost any practical ethic whatsoever, although of course such an outcome is at odds with the intentions of various rights theorists. This shows, in fact, that the leading theories of rights that are not explicitly intuitionist are in fact crypto-intuitionist. Since so many practical commitments are possible on the six most popular rights frameworks, it follows that principles such as strong rights are selected merely intuitively. They certainly do not follow logically from the given frameworks.
  3. A crisis in animal liberationist ideas of equality, which are either vague or else lead to the untoward conclusion that we should flip a coin about whom to save, a baby or a mosquito. Joan Dunayer is a terrific writer, but she suggests that all sentient beings are equal, period. She recommends generally flipping a coin between a human and a dog, and one gets the impression that she would advise the same with a human or an insect from a close reading of her work. This is what leads a lot of people to reject animal rights as “absurd.” We need a coherent way of deciding such dilemmas that is not simply speciesist. Dunayer opens up a world of wonders describing the mental lives of insects and invertebrates of many sorts. Her writing is marvelous on such points. But I do not think such total equality which extends even to life-saving dilemmas is right or defensible. However, there is a crisis in that no account exists that resolves such conflicts nonarbitrarily or without simplying intuiting our way out of the difficulties, which is no help at all.
  4. A crisis in anti-vivisection theories heretofore, since they not only do not lead to their avowed conclusion, but sometimes even conduce towards vivisectionism. This can be seen with respect to my showing the rights theories are ambiguous as to logically permitting utilitarianism, the #1 framework for rationalizing vivisection. However, I will show how even principles of the leading rights theories that are explicitly brought to bear on vivisection do not logically rule out this practice and may seem to conduce towards rationalizing it as ethically permissible or even required.
  5. A crisis in critical moral theory, in which case (a) animal ethics theorists do not foresee logical objections to their own views, and (b) highly objectionable (to my mind) ethical theories are often rebuked, but there is a poverty of convincing refutations—a problem which applies to a whole gamut of such theories. This states of affairs constitutes a crisis since we need not only to assert our own ethical claims convincingly but also to rule out contradictory claims with sufficient reasons. We cannot rule out other views by fiat, or in effect, intuitively or with lame objections and expect to be persuasive in the end.
  6. A crisis of sectarianism in ethics, in which narrow theories battle against each other, and there is no transcendence to a holistic vision which embodies the advantages but not the disadvantages of the competing theories. In “The Rights of Animal Persons,” I hint how best caring ethics may well have reached this level.
  7. A lack of a coherent defintion of “speciesism” even among thinkers such as Regan and Singer. Dunayer criticizes their concepts ably, but succumbs to equally major logical problems in her own account;
  8. A lack of recognition that the traditional concept of “animal welfare” is an oppressive euphemism. This means that the whole debate is not between "animal welfare and animal liberation," but rather, "animal illfare and animal liberation";
  9. Continuing crises of denying animal minds in whole or in parts (although this trend is definitely on the wane, and a great deal of good work has been accomplished on this score); still much convincing argument can be provided to clinch this area of contention, I believe;
  10. A crisis of widely asserted incompatibility between deep ecology and animal liberation. I will try to show that such an impasse is neither necessary nor desirable;
  11. A crisis in religious ethics which casually permit violence towards animals. How can religionists be brought towards animal liberation on their own terms?;
  12. A crisis in personhood theory in which claims are sometimes made for nonhuman personhood that are at once suggestive and unconvincing;
  13. A crisis of a lack of refutation of the view, underlying so much of our culture, that I call “superiorism.” I will show that this view is so logically powerful that it can best existing animal liberation theories, and does not succumb to any of the prevailing objections to humanism (which I argue to be speciesism); this is a crisis of total impotence of existing animal liberation theory, as well as underdevelopment perhaps of humanistic theorizing. I am reputed by many to have come up with the strongest version of humanism in ethics, the better to refute it by tackling the strongest rather than weaker versions.

I will try to substantiate that these crises exist. I will also show that contemporary theory does not nearly meet them but generally allows them to deepen. We can address these “cultural emergencies” neither with denial nor complacency. Rather, we require sound theoretical provisions. There is also a crisis of global capitalism which undermines ethical commitment everywhere, but I intend to address that in a future work on political economy. Whether or to what extent I meet these listed crises in my forthcoming book is left for the reader to decide. Even if I make progress in addressing only one, that would be significant, although my work is more ambitious than that. However that may be, we cannot simply posit “education” as a solution to these crises. We as a culture need to learn better before we can better teach anyone.

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